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Why Pseudoscientific Psychology Thrives

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Fighting pseudoscience is difficult and messy, even more so in Malaysian psychology. I have previously written about how to recognize pseudoscientific practices in psychology to help people without psychology degrees distinguish the quacks from the professionals so that they can avoid them when looking for services. Pseudoscience is basically empty, untested, and potentially useless or harmful statements masquerading as science. Sometimes entire fields of studies alongside groups and ideologies are built on these statements, which continue to exist due to being profitable and free of scientific scrutiny. For this writing in particular, I am going to attempt to address why is this the case, especially for the field of psychology in Malaysia.

Lack of contact with scientific psychology

woman and man handshakingAll in all, it is pretty safe to say that generally Malaysians simply do not have exposure to modern psychology. Collectively it would seem that we are still at the ‘psychology is about mind reading’ or ‘studying crazy problematic people’ stage. That is self-evident every time someone asks a psychology student to read their minds or tell them to pursue a career at ‘somewhere that has more crazy people’.

Even less well-known is the idea that psychology is studied and practiced as a scientific discipline. Many Malaysians don’t really have a good idea of what is ‘science’ to begin with. Many citizens without classes in psychology are not aware that psychology is actually science-able: that human thought, behaviour, and experiences can be studied, measured, and analyzed to understand psychological patterns and relationships, which can in turn form new theories, hypotheses, and models.

The typical understanding of science has been molded by our primary and secondary education system, which confines the definition of science to physics, chemistry, and biology. Anything dissimilar is strictly speaking ‘arts’ and ‘humanities’, which unfortunately translates to ‘low bar of entry’ and ‘unverifiable’. This may have directly contributed to prospective clients not scrutinizing the qualifications of practitioners as they seek services, because it may not have occurred to them that there is are scientific underpinnings for human behaviour which turn requires rigorous quality assurance from educated authorities.

Heuristics and biases

flat-lay photography of four person holding mobile devices

The human mind is riddled with heuristics and biases, especially when it comes to decision making and judgment. These are essentially features of our minds, which help us in other avenues of life, but they are detrimental to our scientific and objective judgment. Scientist Sian Townson listed four in her Guardian article.

  1. Sunk Cost Fallacy: Pseudopsychology practices are often expensive, ranging from quack training to quack therapy. Clients are motivated to persevere in their trust to such services to justify their initial hefty investment.
  2. Confirmation Bias: Clients have an innate disposition to seek out evidence which confirms their already held beliefs and resist contrary ideas. Without basic knowledge of modern psychology at earlier stages of education, clients are vulnerable to mistaken ideas of the human mind during development, which will later predispose them to resist legitimate psychological knowledge.
  3. Clustering Illusion: The human mind is an incredible meaning-making machine, capable of make meanings and connections out of entirely random and unrelated information. This means that clients themselves can easily arrive at inaccurate conclusions about human behaviour, even more so with priming from pseudopsychology sources.
  4. Dunning-Kruger Effect: The more educated one becomes, the less one claims to know. As a result of this, legitimate psychologists and therapists that are self-aware of their own limitations come across as unconfident, which is often unappealing. Meanwhile, pseudopsychology quack often have the market benefit of sounding confident.

Minimal attention span of the needy

click pen and magnifying glass on book pageLet’s put it this way: if you are a prospective client in need of some professional help, you are not very likely to scrutinize your helper’s credentials alongside the scientific aspect of the services. One is more likely to go by word of mouth, feedback, and branding (and other periphery route information) to determine if someone is suitable for their needs. This is especially relevant in human conditions that comes with acute crisis episodes. Otherwise, the pressure from friends, coworkers, and family may lead them to seek services without looking up.

While psychology students, regardless of specialty or concentration, have the privilege of being trained to dig into practitioner credentials before judging, it has to be noted that other members of society rarely do. It is unfair to expect every citizen to be able to research and scientifically understand the treatment or training they are about to get, especially when the problem lies in the systems we live and work in. If we can trust every physician at the local clinic, it is time to ask the question of ‘how do we recreate a similar level of integrity in the psychological professions’.

Mental health is (still) stigmatized

person outside the windowIt is depressing to write this, but the significant strides psychology made as a science and profession in Malaysia may not matter very much, especially if our cultural attitudes towards mental health do not improve. Unless Malaysians start to openly talk about mental health while staying serene and steadfast in the face of more ‘abnormal’ aspects of each other’s behaviors, our best efforts to refine the science of psychology and the art of psychotherapy may not have much meaning. It is not exactly the case of mental health literacy, but rather a more civilized attitude towards mental illnesses.

Why is this relevant? Because pseudoscience peddlers thrive when certain conversations can’t be openly held without personal and social repercussions. When our citizens are closing our minds and turning away from ‘abnormalities’, victims have to turn to these peddlers who make themselves accessible. Why would anyone care to be cautious and rational about their decisions to seek psychological help, when they feel that nobody genuinely cares and their employment might be under threat?

Legitimate practitioners and researchers are right to be angered when the integrity of their professions is compromised by profit-minded people who operate under the pretense of science, yet the core problem doesn’t go away simply by successful legal action or boycott. We can take down a couple of unaccredited ‘psychologists’ and ‘lay-counsellors’ at large, but what is stopping them from consulting other ‘experts’ that are more benign? After all, we all know someone that delights in doling out life advice and wisdom, what is stopping some of them from profiting of it under the guise of science?

The harder questions

man and woman talking to each otherWhen psychology was that new kid on the block in Malaysia, it promised to enhance our lives through empowering our minds with better understanding of the science of mind. But outside of educational fairs and some journalistic work, how often has our psychology offered the incredible value it promised locally?

There are these scary little questions that legitimate psychologists and counsellors have to ask themselves. Are we really the real thing? Are we really better?

A counselling trainee, Jackie Yong, offered a fresh, if not unpopular perspective on this matter based off his experience applying for internship positions.

“The public could not differentiate legit and quack practitioners just as how we could not differentiate legit and quacks in other industries. In the midst of anger of quacks making money and “scamming” other people, what are we doing? Have we reflected how what causes people to choose quacks over the legitimate ones?

I personally sent out 35 emails to 35 different centres, schools and NGOs to look for an internship placement. The response rate was low and slow. Only 7 out of 35 replied which makes up to 1/5. The other 4/5 went without news. In fact, it took some of them up to a week to reply Facebook message or WhatsApp which is also a medium to seek for help from them. It is not the other party’s obligation to reply the email but do we uphold the professionalism to reply to every email not to mention how nasty the replies are? Quacks can reply professionally within hours of the same day!

Also, quacks gives opportunities and trust. For a 26 year old with only 7 years of working experience as a part time tutor, I knew I could not compete with my classmates who are older and have much more experience in workplace than me. I developed my own module in my area of interest for specialization and some “legit” places who replied either offer to “use my module for themselves on my behalf because I am not a professional” or offer to “put their logo on my module ” in which in return trying to ignore me as a person. Wonder how quacks work with that? Talk to one and see how much effort and money they would invest on a project.

Therefore, who gave quacks the opportunity to grow? No other than we ourselves. Most people could not reply to communication channels they set for the public to contact them soonest possible. Quacks can. I knew of many legitimate places that are not even willing to invest in anything (training new people, advertising etc). Quacks are willing. Some legit places are turning people away if unable to pay. Quacks search for sponsors for them. Possibly quacks knew that they need to work extra hard to be known and seen therefore the public knew their existence as the very first image. My personal belief is that quacks cannot be toppled IF legit places are not upholding communication professionalism as well as doing equal or better than quacks do in the area of portraying themselves.”

This lengthy anecdote is from a vantage point of a student struggling to get into the industry with good faith, I can only imagine in extension how these unnamed professionals choose to treat others. This invites some questions that people working in counselling and psychology have to ask themselves.

Have we acted professionally and compassionately in all aspects of our professional lives?

Have we done our best to make ourselves to accessible and helpful?

Were we in this industry because of some unresolved need to have power over others?

I don’t have answers to all these unpleasant questions I posed, but hope to point out that pseudoscience thrives not because our research is not good enough or that we don’t have enough professionals, but rather because of how vulnerable the average citizen can be if they knew no one to turn to. If pseudoscience peddlers become more accessible than legitimate practitioners, it is no surprise that they can stubbornly persist even under scrutiny.

But we can all start somewhere by putting our compassionate selves out there.

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Jia Yue Tan
JY is a counselling trainee at Monash University Malaysia under the Master of Professional Counselling program and writes psychology articles to procrastinate from his counselling paperwork and assignments. His interests are in individual differences, psychotherapy, and helping the public understand psychology(s) as a profession. Occasionally reviews books and promote person-centered psychotherapy.

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